Seconds after Mahendra Singh Dhoni lashed a helpless Ashish Reddy back past him for a scorching boundary and pulled another rabbit out of the hat, a friend asked me, "Is Dhoni the best finisher ever?" Without so much as a second thought, instinctively, I replied, "Almost." And didn't think much about it.
After a while, though, the mind kept going back to the use of the word 'almost'. Was it a quip? Was it the result of years of scepticism and cynicism that is sometimes an inevitable fallout of more than two decades as a cricket journalist? Or was it because a sub-conscious thought expressed itself, without my conscious knowledge?
So, who is a Finisher? Universal cricketing definition would suggest a Finisher - a term used exclusively in the limited-overs game - is a middle-order batsman who marshalls a run chase, staying till the end and taking the team home from impossible situations, time after time, with a poise and a calmness that suggests a certain non-humanness.
The original Finisher was Michael Bevan, the Australian batsman with nerves of steel, with a cricket brain that was always working overtime, with a tremendous nous and understanding of the 50-over game. A left-hand batsman who trusted his abilities, who believed nothing was beyond him, and who often translated that belief into the most unbelievable victories.
Bevan, it seemed, was born to play the limited-overs game. His somewhat suspect technique against the short delivery - it's a mystery how only in some cases, such as Bevan's and Suresh Raina's, naturally missing predilections are blown out of proportion - restricted his Test career to just 18 games, but draped in the Australian one-day colours, Bevan was at once Superman and Mandrake.
Gradually, as Bevan faded into oblivion and more attractive, more fierce strikers of the cricket ball came through, the tag of Finisher switched hands. Yuvraj Singh was burdened with that tag - it is no privilege, mind you, because once you are the Finisher, Finished is never too far away - during India's phenomenal run of a record 17 wins on the trot while chasing in One-Day International cricket during the Rahul Dravid-Greg Chappell era. Then, when Dhoni decided to take things into his own hands, he became the new, improved Finisher.
Eoin Morgan, Kieron Pollard, Misbah-ul-Haq, AB de Villiers - all these men have been labelled Finishers at some stage or the other but they haven't quite enjoyed the same success as Bevan, Yuvraj or Dhoni. And these are all men who stride out towards the middle of an innings, either with a platform to build on or a repair job to address.
But should a Finisher necessarily be a middle order man? Maybe that was what triggered the use of the word 'almost' in the Dhoni context. What, indeed, is a Finisher? Is he someone who finishes off a game as a contest long before the last ball is bowled, or is he someone who has contributed substantially and is still around when the winning runs are brought up? If it is only the latter, then one need not look beyond the names mentioned above. But why can't it be the former? Why are Sachin Tendulkar and Chris Gayle, Sanath Jayasuriya and Sourav Ganguly and Saeed Anwar, why are these giants not considered Finishers?
No one who watched Gayle tear into the Pune Warriors India bowling at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore the other evening would have been in any doubt who the difference between the sides was, who killed the game off as a contest almost immediately after it started. Wasn't he a Finisher that evening as he uncorked sixes with the ridiculous ease of a high school bully snatching candies from toddlers? Is he any less of an impact man than Bevan, Yuvraj or Dhoni?
Perhaps it's time we began to redefine the role of the Finisher, and extend the ambit to envelop the opening batsmen who, either batting first or chasing, make the definitive difference between winning and losing. Like Gayle, Tendulkar has been involved in settling the destination of a cricket match all on his own. What about his assault on Australia in Sharjah in April 1998? Or on a shell-shocked Henry Olonga and company, also in Sharjah, also in 1998, when he unleashed such fury that Olonga almost regretted having him caught off a snorter a couple of days prior to that in a league encounter?
What, indeed, of his first outing as an opening batsman in international cricket, when he decimated New Zealand with an innings of such sustained brutality that even seasoned veterans were left shaking their heads in equal measures of disbelief, reverence and awe? Or of that measured, determined, unfussed hundred in the opening game of the tri-series finals in Sydney in early 2008, his first limited-overs hundred against Australia in Australia that set the tone for India's 2-0 sweep in the best-of-three finals?
Conventional wisdom dictates that the romanticism associated with a middle-order batsman who defies the odds and pulls off a victory from the jaws of defeat, to borrow a much abused cliche, is hard to match. The pressures of a mounting run rate and of wickets tumbling at the other end add to the drama and the uncertainty. To hold one's nerve, to keep his wits about him and to take the team past the line more often than not are extraordinary traits that only a few extraordinary individuals possess, but no less thrilling is to watch a Gayle or a Tendulkar, at his prime, dismantle the best bowlers in the opposition ranks, fresh and armed with a hard new ball.
To me, Gayle will remain the ultimate Finisher, and this isn't merely a fallout of that gargantuan 175 not out the other night. Bowlers fear Gayle. Yes, they are afraid of what Dhoni can do, but they actually fear Gayle. And as Alistair MacLean so beautifully put it, Fear is the key. Dhoni will brutalise and torment, occasionally dink and tease. Gayle destroys and decimates, with a supreme nonchalance that isn't so much affected as natural. In another time and age, Dhoni would have been the consummate Finisher but, in my book, it's Gayle who occupies that exalted status. And never mind if he is not a middle order batsman.